Last month, flames began to flicker into the night sky at the Moria refugee camp on Greece’s Lesvos island. Soon after the first sparks, the blaze had engulfed the makeshift shelters at the hilltop military base. The more than 13,000 migrants living there — Moria was designed for only 3,000 — were once again displaced, this time on the continent they’d risked so much to reach.
I began photographing the plight of refugees in Greece in 2015, traveling between the islands which are their entry point to Europe. Thousands arrived from war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Others make the long journey from Iran, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa; often with nothing more than a backpack and the hope of a new life.
Five years ago, places like Moria were just a stopping point, where migrants were screened and fingerprinted. Volunteers and humanitarian workers greeted them with hot tea and blankets to warm them after the treacherous sea journey. On the islands, there was a sense of solidarity and of humanitarianism among the volunteers who stepped in to fill the gap left by governments and institutions.
Slowly at first, and then more quickly, the rest of Europe started to close up, though — leaving many migrants stuck. Whereas the Greek islands had been a starting point for many, or a stopgap until they could find their way further north, it was now home. Temporary became permanent, as many waited years to have their asylum claims heard.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation. Camps in Greece locked down or shut altogether, even after restrictions were lifted elsewhere in the country. The NGO Doctors Without Borders argued that there was no public health justification for measures it described as “toxic” and “blatant discrimination.” Now, it said, a different threat was surging: self-harm, violence, depression and other mental health issues in the camps.
Five years on, there are other impacts. Locals, who helped settle refugees, say they are now the forgotten victims. Tourism on Lesvos has collapsed and those who live close to the settlements feel unsafe in their homes. Solidarity has given way to anger. Local people feel their generosity was used against them as an international problem became an acute local one.
Below is a photographic timeline from the start of the migration crisis in 2015 to the present.
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